On this day in 1688 Alexander Pope was born in London, the only child of middle-aged, Catholic parents. This was the year of the Glorious Revolution, and the broom that swept out Catholic James II and swept in Constitutional reform also brought new restrictions and suspicions upon English Catholics. Barred from politics, and from attending university in pursuit of such careers as law and medicine -- barred even from living within ten miles of London -- Pope began as an outsider and seemed destined to remain so. In his early teens he contracted a tubercular bone disease which caused him to be hunchbacked, no more than 4' 6" tall, and plagued by various secondary ailments.
Many biographers attribute Pope's legendary sourness and satire to such a convergence of circumstances, agreeing with Samuel Johnson that "The weakness of his body continued through his life, but the mildness of his mind perhaps ended with his childhood." One of Pope's targets, William Broome, was less diplomatic:
I often resemble him to a hedge hog; he...lies snug and warm, and sets his bristles out against all mankind. Sure he is fond of being hated. I wonder he is not thrashed: but his littleness is his protection; no man shoots a wren.
Pope's bristling was all the more effective for being polished smooth in couplets, these two from his Essay on Criticism:
... A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring.
... Nay fly to Altars; there they'll talk you dead;
For Fools rush in where Angels fear to tread.
Lytton Strachey concluded that such lines, when aimed at their many targets, "resembled nothing so much as spoonfuls of boiling oil, ladled out by a fiendish monkey at an upstairs window upon such passers-by whom the wretch had a grudge against -- and we are delighted." He also reckoned that Pope was the first English writer to achieve financial independence solely from his writing (given that Shakespeare was also an actor and theater manager). With his wealth Pope was able to move to a villa in Twickenham and spoon away in comfort, attended by his widowed mother, his dogs and a circle of friends which included those famous writers of the day who were not his enemies.
One of these was Jonathan Swift. After Pope's mother had died, and as Swift declined further into poor health, Pope implored his friend to come live with him:
... I never aimed at any other fortune than friends.... I could keep you, for I am rich, that is, I have more than I want.... Yet my house is enlarged, and the gardens extend and flourish, knowing nothing of the guests I have lost ... for God's sake, why should not you ... e'en give all you have to the poor of Ireland (for whom you have already done everything else) so quit the place and live and die with me?
A vision of the two finest flowers of British satire being odd-coupled for their last decade among the gardens of Twickenham has delighted generations, but for reasons of health or temperament it was not to be. What remains is a different, more poignant picture. Pope had gradually acquired about five acres of land and transformed it well beyond the gardens mentioned in his letter. Most famous among his projects, and still standing today, is his grotto, described by him in this 1725 letter as an oasis of beauty which might transform any hunchback or monkey:
I have put the last hand to my works...happily finishing the subterraneous Way and Grotto: I then found a spring of the clearest water, which falls in a perpetual Rill, that echoes thru' the Cavern day and night. ...When you shut the Doors of this Grotto, it becomes on the instant, from a luminous Room, a Camera Obscura, on the walls of which all the objects of the River, Hills, Woods, and Boats, are forming a moving Picture...And when you have a mind to light it up, it affords you a very different Scene: it is finished with Shells interspersed with Pieces of Looking-glass in angular Forms ... at which when a Lamp...is hung in the Middle, a thousand pointed Rays glitter and are reflected over the place.